Court stops universities from cutting staff salaries

An employment court in Nairobi, Kenya, has barred two public universities from cutting workers’ salaries pending the hearing and determination of a case filed by the Universities Academic Staff Union (UASU).

Egerton University and Kisii University last month issued circulars to staff informing them of an intention to reduce salaries by 40% as a result of the negative impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The financial situation at public universities is dire and, as we appeal for assistance from the government to enable us to pay our staff, the university has decided to settle 60% of employees’ salaries,” said Professor Rose Mwonya, vice-chancellor of Egerton University.

Her counterpart at Kisii University also said the university was facing a deficit of over US$520,000. “In ordinary times, money raised from students would have closed the deficit but since March, the university has not received any cash,” said Vice-Chancellor Professor John Akama.

In its reaction, UASU, the umbrella universities’ trade union, urged its members to reject any pay cuts. “As a union we are telling our members to reject the 60% salary in totality as we are not informed of the issue,” said Dr Constantine Wasonga, UASU secretary-general. To date, all workers at the two universities have not been paid their April salaries.

Union input

In his ruling on 22 May, Judge Byram Ongaya stopped vice-chancellors of the two universities, or their agents, from paying reduced salaries. Granting the temporary reprieve, Ongaya stressed that no salary cuts should be made without the inclusion of the union’s input.

Citing the urgency of the matter, Ongaya ordered the two universities and UASU to negotiate the matter before the trial of the case due to be heard on 27 May.

Although Egerton and Kisii universities are currently in the spotlight over their inability to pay full contractual salaries as a result of reduced revenue collection from full cost paying students, other universities in Kenya are also struggling.

On 16 May, Kenyatta University, Kenya’s second largest public university in terms of enrolment (with 58,320 students), announced the suspension of salaries for part-time lecturers and staff on short-term contracts due to the decline in revenue collection as a result of the impact of COVID-19, which has led to the closure of universities and has effectively paralysed learning services.

According to Professor Fatuma Chege, the deputy vice-chancellor in charge of administration, staff on three-month contracts are paid using proceeds from income-generating activities. “But since the university has not resumed operations and there are no income-generating activities taking place, the management is finding it hard to pay salaries to this category of staff,” said Chege.

Voluntary pay cuts

Maseno University, also a public institution, has requested that staff take voluntary salary cuts. According to Dr Owen McOnyango, the director of public relations, the university is experiencing a financial crisis. “So far, some staff members have surrendered part of their pay because of the pandemic,” said McOnyango. He said the deducted money would be refunded when the situation improved.

But the situation is much worse at Jaramogi Oginga Odinga University of Science and Technology, where employees whose services are classified as non-essential have been sent on leave until the coronavirus is contained or more funds are made available by the government.

Urging lecturers and professors to resist moves by universities to cut their salaries, Dr Muga K’Olale, the national chairman of UASU, blamed universities for having bloated administrations and relying heavily on contract staff. He said while teaching staff are employees of the government, universities have transformed themselves into havens of non-teaching staff and casual workers.

‘Non-existing services’

“Why should government employees continue to suffer at the expense of people employed by the universities for non-essential and non-existing services?” asked K’Olale.

He claimed some universities had employed so many casual workers that they now outnumber the university staff employed by the government. K’Olale said the time had come for universities to offload employees that were hired when parallel programmes (fee-based, income-generating programmes) were thriving, instead of threatening lecturers and other critical university staff with salary cuts.

As parallel programmes have declined, few universities can afford large armies of support staff and ghost workers. “It is illegal to cut salaries of employees without their consent,” said K’Olale.